NEW YORK — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that his country poses "absolutely no threat to the world," and sanctions that have crippled its economy are "violent — pure and simple."
In his first address to the world body, hours after President Barack Obama spoke, Rouhani also said he is prepared to engage in "time-bound" talks to resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.
Rouhani’s closely watched visit to the United Nations followed a series of diplomatic overtures the centrist-leaning cleric has made to the West since he was elected to replace hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he stressed his moderate credentials.
He also blasted "brutal oppression of the Palestinian people," criticized the use of drones, and said the biggest threat in the Middle East is chemical weapons falling into the hands of "extremist terrorist groups" — a nod to the crisis in Syria, a close ally.
While the speech was far more toned-down than the invective-filled addresses Ahmadinejad has given, Rouhani had strong words for the "intrinsically inhumane" sanctions imposed because of his country's nuclear activities.
"It is the common people who are victimized by these sanctions," he said.
He insisted that Iran's atomic energy program is "exclusively peaceful" and that he is ready to engage "immediately in time-bound and results-oriented" talks with the West but expects to be treated with "mutual respect" by the U.S.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday suggested Iran's diplomatic overtures to the West on its nuclear program were a ploy in order to continue pursuing atomic weapons.
"Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb," Netanyahu said after Rouhani's speech, adding that Israel would welcome a diplomatic solution that dismantled Iran's capacity to develop nuclear weapons.
The Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, issued a statement calling Rouhani’s debut UN speech “more of the same platitude and denials” and said he was playing the “victim’s card” by claiming Iran was being persecuted by the international community
While Obama had encouraging words for his Iranian counterpart during his address, it appears a much buzzed-about meeting between the two leaders won't happen during the General Assembly.
Two senior administration officials told White House reporters that a meeting — even a handshake, even on the sidelines — proved “too complicated” for Rouhani back home.
As a result, Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with his own Iranian counterpart, scheduled for Thursday, will be the highest-level encounter between the two countries at the U.N.
Foreign affairs experts had speculated that Obama and Rouhani might shake hands at a luncheon for world leaders on Tuesday, where the menu included tuna tartar and veal osso bucco — or that they might at least eat in the same room. An Obama-Rouhani handshake would have been a historic moment in U.S.-Iranian relations, which have been frosty at best for three decades.
But a U.N. handler told White House reporters that Iran would not be represented at the luncheon. She said that Iran did not RSVP, and added that many delegations skip the lunch.
Before lunch, Obama told the General Assembly that that the United States and Iran could start down a “long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interest and respect.”
Obama stressed that the U.S. is determined not to let Iran have a nuclear weapon. But he suggested that two recent statements, including Rouhani’s saying that his country will never develop a nuclear weapon, represent crucial progress.
“We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful,” he said.
He said that he was directing Kerry, working closely with European allies, Russia and China, to pursue an agreement with the government of Iran.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said.
He spoke of deep mistrust between the United States and Iran since the revolution there: Iranians have complained of U.S. interference, while Americans see a country that has taken Americans hostage, killed American troops and threatened Israel.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep,” he said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Before Rouhani spoke, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world "should not be fooled" by signs of moderation from Tehran.
Netanyahu voiced deep skepticism about Iran's new outreach to the West, saying it is merely a ploy to ease international sanctions while secretly building a nuclear weapon.
“Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” he said.
Netanyahu said that he welcomed Obama’s efforts to engage Rouhani in dialogue. But he said that Iran’s conciliatory words must be matched by actions.
On the crisis in Syria, Obama called on the U.N. to pass a strong resolution to verify that Syrian leader Bashar Assad lives up to his commitment to get rid of his chemical weapons.
“If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws,” he said. “On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.”
The president said that it was an “insult to human reason and the legitimacy of this institution” to suggest that anyone other than the forces of Assad used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in the Syrian civil war.
The United States says it has overwhelming evidence that loyalist forces sent sarin-gas rockets into a rebel neighborhood and killed 1,400 people, including civilians and more than 400 children.
Alluding to Americans’ disinclination to get involved in another Middle East conflict, Obama said that it would be a danger for the United States to “disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”
“I believe that would be a mistake,” Obama said. “I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”
The mention of American exceptionalism seemed a reference to an Op-Ed published last week in The New York Times by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He wrote that it was “extremely dangerous” to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.
Obama had threatened a military strike to enforce the nearly worldwide ban on chemical weapons. The attack was averted when the United States and Russia struck a deal under which Syria must hand over and ultimately destroy its chemicals by next year.
In his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that he made the threat because “it is in the security interest of the United States and the world to meaningfully enforce a prohibition whose origins are older than the U.N. itself.”
He spoke of the memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches of World War I, of Jews slaughered in Nazi gas chambers and — pointedly — of the tens of thousands of Iranians poisoned to death in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.
Outlining American policy in the Middle East, Obama said Tuesday that the United States was committed to using “all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.”
He said that the United States would confront aggression against allies, and ensure the flow of energy to the world. He also vowed to dismantle terror networks that threaten Americans, and said that the U.S. would not tolerate weapons of mass destruction.
Reuters contributed to this report.